Eight months ago, on December 28, a warplane from the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS, struck a building in the Syrian town of al-Bab that had been identified as a local headquarters for the militant group. It was just one of over a thousand airstrikes the coalition had launched up to that point. However, this building wasn’t simply a gathering place for militants or a storehouse for weapons. It was also being used as a makeshift prison for local civilians whom ISIS had accused of petty offenses like smoking cigarettes and wearing jeans.
The jail was a symptom of the harsh rule the Islamic State had imposed in early 2014. When ISIS took over the town, in the Aleppo region near the Turkish border, ordinary life gave way to a reign of terror. Executions were regularly carried out in the town square, with the bodies of victims being left out for days, often with signs hanging from their chests stating their alleged crimes. Islamic State members would stop children in the street and ask them if their fathers had gone to prayer. Hundreds of locals were held in prison at any given time.
When the coalition bomb hit on that December evening, one witness said, the explosion shook the entire city. In the hours that followed, there was shooting in the streets; the Islamic State could be heard making announcements over loudspeakers; and sirens wailed into the night. The witness said he could hear women in the town screaming and crying when they found out that the building where their relatives were being held had been hit. The prison was leveled, and it was days before the rubble was cleared and all the bodies were extracted and returned to the victims’ families. At least 58 civilians were killed, including a number of teenagers. So far, it is one of the worst mass-casualty incidents attributed to the US-led coalition.
The Pentagon didn’t disclose the airstrike publicly, but a week later, reporters at McClatchy got a tip from one of their partners in Syria. After persistent questioning, the Pentagon admitted it had carried out the attack. McClatchy published a story, backed up by photographic evidence, NGO corroboration, and witness accounts. If it hadn’t been for the doggedness of the McClatchy reporters, the story might not have been reported at all.
But even after McClatchy’s report, very few news outlets picked it up. Even the most avid reader of The New York Times or The Washington Post would never have heard of the incident. News of the strike apparently did create a stir among Pentagon reporters when it was first released, but for one reason or another, the topic was eventually dropped. Roy Gutman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign correspondent and one of the authors of the McClatchy piece, says only one reporter ever called him hoping to follow up on the story.
“The lack of contacts from colleagues was definitely surprising. It was amazing,” he said, adding, “It’s absolutely essential that all news organizations follow up on these things.”
As of this month, the US-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria for one year. So far, it has carried out over 5,900 strikes. In that time, the Pentagon has admitted to only two civilian deaths, continually insisting that its precision weapons have minimized civilian fatalities to a remarkable level—too remarkable to be believed. In June, Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, former combined forces air component commander, called the current air war against ISIS “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.”
However, in a report published this month, a monitoring group called Airwars has documented at least 459 civilian deaths that it says were likely the result of the coalition bombing campaign—a far cry from the two deaths that have so far been admitted. Each of these incidents has been reported by two or more credible sources and occurred in an area where Airwars confirmed there was a coalition airstrike. Many are backed up by photographs, videos, and biographical information about the victims. The revelation is hardly surprising, given the history of civilian deaths resulting from US-led air campaigns. In the first year of the Iraq War, aerial bombing resulted in over 2,000 deaths. In Afghanistan, over 3,000 civilians were killed in the first year of the aerial campaign. What is most surprising about the bombing of ISIS over the past year is that even after widely reported mass-casualty incidents in those previous wars, major media outlets have been slow to challenge the Pentagon’s unrealistic claims.
Even at a press conference specifically dedicated to the state of the Air Force, at which both the Air Force chief of staff and the Air Force secretary were present and which took place only four days after McClatchy released its story, none of the correspondents posed a single question about civilian casualties. According to Chris Woods, head of the Airwars project and an award-winning investigative journalist, this falls into a trend of major US news outlets shying away from challenging the official narrative around civilian deaths.
“When you have such extravagant claims—‘No civilians or almost no civilians are being killed in war…’—any journalist who understands war and conflict should know that there’s going to be something fishy about that,” Woods said. “Are we seeing enough journalists questioning that? I don’t think we are.”
Mainstream media outlets are not unaware of the cost of aerial bombardment. In fact, many were reporting some civilian casualties from coalition bombing in the first few months of the campaign, issuing early warnings about the dangers of targeting ISIS in populous areas. This coverage came out around the same time that thousands of Syrians took to the streets to protest the airstrikes, in part because of civilian casualties. Early coverage also seemed to be a reaction to the expansion of the bombing campaign into Syria, the shift in targeting to include lucrative oil facilities where civilians were working, and the movement of Islamic State fighters into more populated areas. These early warnings proved to be prescient. Since that time, the number of airstrikes per month has increased—but the reporting hasn’t kept up.
As a matter of fact, the first three months of the campaign, when these reports were released, saw relatively low numbers of civilian deaths compared to the months that followed—which have included at least three mass-casualty events. However, the media’s attention soon shifted to the question of whether there were too many restrictions on the air campaign. Its previous warnings have yet to translate into a substantial effort to hold the coalition accountable, even as civilian casualties have mounted, and especially when it comes to mass-casualty airstrikes. Reporting of these events has been patchy across the board, with key news outlets forgoing coverage. The result has been that few of them have risen to the infamous status of the Azizabad debacle or the Kunduz massacre, both of which occurred during the war in Afghanistan.
While the media almost unanimously swarmed around the Bir Mahli incident—during which a coalition strike on an ISIS-controlled village in Syria left 64 dead, including women and children—two other mass-casualty incidents, in al-Bab and Hawija, have received far less attention. At one Pentagon briefing, an AP reporter asked about the June airstrike on an IED-making facility in Hawija, which killed up to 70 civilians. In response, the Pentagon insisted that the Islamic State was to blame because it planned to use the deadly explosives against civilians and Iraqi forces. General Hesterman told reporters, “If there’re unintended injuries, that responsibility rests squarely on Daesh [ISIS].”
Even though Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporters were present, neither publication reported on the Hawija bombing. The New York Times relegated its coverage to the web, republishing a Reuters story. In fact, even the Bir Mahli incident was only given a brief mention in the Post.
Deeply reported stories like the one that appeared in McClatchy are few and far between. The New York Times, for instance, has reported on civilian casualties mainly by republishing stories from wire services like AP and Reuters. Much coverage over the past year has taken the he-said-she-said form: human rights groups say dozens were killed; the military says it doesn’t believe any were killed. That kind of story, while better than nothing, does not draw adequate attention to the growing gap between what rights groups and witnesses on the ground are saying and what the coalition is willing to admit.
In recent years, many publications have been under financial pressure to shrink their foreign desks. However, the tendency to take Pentagon statements more or less at face value cannot be chalked up to financial constraints. The Los Angeles Times has cut its foreign bureaus from 22 in 2004 to ten as of last year, but it still managed to report the al-Bab story, complete with testimony from the head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Meanwhile, due to its merger with the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times now has more foreign correspondents than ever before, and it has seven more international bureaus than it had ten years ago.
The more significant obstacle for news organizations is the increasing danger of sending reporters into the field, where there is a possibility that they will kidnapped, tortured, or even subjected to gruesome public beheadings. Now that the US-led coalition is fighting militants who are holding territory that stretches across much of eastern Syria and western Iraq, it is difficult to send investigative teams to the site of coalition bombings.
But as Woods points out, it’s still possible to report these stories in thoughtful ways, as demonstrated by the work of Airwars and McClatchy. Reporters can contact Syrian NGOs, speak to refugees, and scour social media. And if anyone has the resources to do this, it’s the major new outlets.
“These are very, very tough times for journalists,” Woods said. “We are limited in what we can achieve, but [Airwars is] a tiny organization that has spent six months looking at this and we have demonstrably shown that there is a major volume of material in the public domain alleging significant civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria. We found that material. We published that material. The material was always there. I guess the question is, why haven’t news organizations gone looking for that?”
A more likely explanation for why we have not seen many scathing critiques of the military’s lack of transparency is a combination of caution and editorial priorities. Many news outlets have dedicated their time over the past year to analyzing the effectiveness of the air campaign, parsing through the web of actors involved in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, documenting the plight of refugees, and explaining the rise of ISIS and its inner workings. Moreover, many thousands more civilians have been killed by the governments of Syria and Iraq, along with their associated militias, as well as by the Islamic State and other militant groups, than have been killed by coalition bombing. Reporter Eric Schmitt of The New York Times says the paper has been waiting for more concrete evidence that the Pentagon has been downplaying civilian casualty numbers.
There are signs that now the mainstream press may be more willing to push the military on civilian casualty figures, whether it has enough intelligence on the ground to choose the right targets, and who it’s defining as a combatant as opposed to a noncombatant. Just this month, The New York Times released a well-reported story detailing a civilian-casualty incident in the Syrian town of Atmeh. According to Schmitt, there is serious talk at the Times of taking a broader look at the air campaign over the past year and challenging the Pentagon’s claims.
“The people who died in al-Bab and some of the other people who’ve died in these attacks are sort of nameless, faceless, and voiceless,” Gutman said. “I do think we have an obligation to try to be the voice of the voiceless if we can.”